Thoughts About My Academic Experience

My education and career in academics

I’ve attended or been employed at five academic institutions during my career:

  • University of Pittsburgh – Undergraduate institution where, in four years, I completed a B.S. in biochemistry and biology with a minor in chemistry in 1974. Though I did well academically here, it was a time for gaining clarity about my future direction, which started as pre-medicine and ended with a focus on how the brain works, with encouragement from my organic chemistry professor who, because of my scores in his class, thought I should be doing something related to human biochemistry.
  • Fairleigh Dickenson University – An interest in pursuing psychology graduate school where I could develop my interests in neuropsychopharmacology, stimulated by reading a book on this subject by Floyd Bloom, and motivated me to take enough courses at FDU to complete a minor in psychology in the summer after completed my degree at UPitt.
  • University of Minnesota, Twin Cities – After applying to a number of programs where I could study how drugs like marijuana, opium or psychedelics effected the brain, I was accepted to this pharmacology doctorate program, and eventually joined Akira E. Takemori’s laboratory where I characterized a drug pair that bound irreversibly to the opiate receptor, having either long-acting antagonist or agonist activity. I used these drugs to be one of the first to purify a putative opiate receptor from mouse brain tissue. I completed my Ph.D. in 1979 and went on to continue my studies as a postdoctoral fellow at the Brain Research Center in the Department of Psychiatry at St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center’s which was affiliated with UMN. In this position I continued to develop my laboratory skills in biochemistry to study brain chemical mechanisms, and also did some work building a biobank of human brain tissue from patients who died from Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Deciding that I did not want to be in the laboratory any longer, while recognizing that my laboratory skills were not as good as someone who wants to be successful in biochemistry, I pursued interests in the business of medicine by attending the MIT Sloan School of Management, proposing in my application that I wanted to work at the interface of the biomedical industry and academics (see Virginia Tech and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill below). However once there and in the middle of the explosive birth of the PC industry, I ended up working towards the development of startup computer technology companies as the result of my experience in the summer of 1983 at a Boston venture capital company called Zero Stage Capital, in which my MIT master’s thesis advisor, Edward Roberts was a partner.
  • Virginia Tech – After about five years pursuing startup and venture capital opportunities, and then another five years in a project manager role at a financial software company (an unexpected tangent considering my background in biomedicine), I ended up with a position at the interface of academics and industry for the Associate Vice Provost for Program Development in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies at Virginia Tech. Initially this position put me in a role where I worked mostly with engineers and computer scientists developing relationships with Virginia’s defense contractors and telecommunications industry. It was really an economic development job in which I tried to both assist companies in Virginia, as well as faculty who were trying to raise funds from those companies. Recognizing that most of the funds for academic research came from government, not industry, I shifted my focus to supporting government-academic-industry partnerships. For instance in 1999, I played a key role in winning a $2 M award from Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology for the Internet Technology Innovation Center, a partnership of four Virginia institutions, including Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, George Mason University and Christopher Newport University which would develop Virginia’s internet technology industry, at the peak of the Internet craze in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Another example was my work to develop the Food, Nutrition, and Health Institute with major funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia to work with major companies in- and out-of-state to develop research supporting their interests in moving food from field to fork. This initiative included 65 faculty in five Virginia Tech colleges and, due to efforts of myself and leading faculty, became the priority of the Cooperative Extension/Agricultural Experiment Station organization’s five year plan submitted for funding to the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as one of two priorities of Virginia Tech in pursuing funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia – as a top priority, leadership gave significant attention to raising these funds. I also worked on other key projects including an Infectious Disease Initiative, and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. However, state funding for Virginia Tech was being cut in 2002-2003, so I found new support in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM), where, as Director of Research Initiatives, I was able to continue my work developing infectious disease initiatives, and increasing Virginia Tech’s funding from the National Institutes of Health. In this position I was responsible for winning the first major NIH training awards at Virginia Tech, and I raised $8 M for an infectious disease research facility at VMRCVM. In 2003-2008, I also got involved in the Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG) and did my own research on a Laboratory Animal Information Management System (LASy; see ‘Experience with Medical Data Networks‘) in partnership with Steve Sheetz and Csaba Egyhazy. Another budget cut meant it was time for me to leave in August 2008 and in October 2008 I obtained a job at NIH via a government contract with SRA International.
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – In January 2012, after developing further experience with caBIG and biomedical informatics, by my efforts to develop a Biomedical Informatics Think Tank (see ‘Experience with Medical Data Networks‘) from 2010-2011, I started a new position as Health Informatics Liaison Research Associate at UNC, Chapel Hill (for details see ‘Experience with Medical Data Networks‘).

Academic afterlife

Though there was a time that I felt strongly connected to my doctoral institution, UMN Twin Cities, particularly the Department of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine for which I worked with my previous advisor to develop a history of the department, my primary connection as ‘alumni’ has been with MIT and more recently with UNC Chapel Hill.

MIT provides many reasons for staying engaged with highly active local chapters in most places where I lived. Even in Southwest Virginia there was some effort by MIT to remain connected to its alumni. Then there are the efforts to support job searches by the MIT Sloan School of Management’s career office, though, as with most academic institutions these offices are mostly focused on their current graduates. This career office did have a better program for alumni seeking jobs than other institutions with which I had affiliation. Finally there are the alumni celebrations every five years at the MIT Sloan School of Management which I have attended maybe three times over the 35 years since my graduation. Recently, as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, MIT has started virtual webinars, and discussion groups with a monthly update about all the activities that I can join. So seeing reason to stay connected has been easy.

UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) seems to be a more personal connection for me. I enjoyed the 3.5 years that I spent working closely with the faculty and dean of the UNC SILS. Seems those relationships affected me more, maybe because they were supportive of my efforts to build a career in health and biomedical informatics. Dean Gary Marchionini, my sponsor was always pleasant and even fun to join for a meeting about my work. I gave him a venue for his interests that were not easy to pursue as the Dean of a major school at UNC with constant challenges keeping strong the School’s reputation as a top Information and Library Science program. Other faculty were a joy to work with, as either simply a colleague in the same school or as partner in pursuing research and student project opportunities. I never felt diminished by an attitude that I was lesser than, though at other institutions I would have been seen as merely a research associate, not a tenure track faculty member of the department. At SILS I was part of a team working to help faculty develop their programs and teach students. Furthermore the students were always a joy with which to work on projects, or just get to know. All were very smart and stimulated my thinking at all times.